At the final whistle on Saturday night, the England players appeared to have lost the world Cup final. Harry Kane had to be supported by sympathetic teammates. Declan Rice almost had to be peeled from the grass. Harry Maguire had difficulty getting up. It was a moment of immense pain and sadness for the England players, and that’s understandable.
None of the players would have wanted to say that in public, but they must have felt that the France match was a final before the final. Win it and they’d have a foothold in next Sunday’s deciding game, and a winnable game to boot.
And there must have been moments during Saturday night’s game – notably when Kane was setting up his second penalty against Hugo Lloris – that England players could have charted their own path from then on. Defeat France in added time. Head back up to the Al Bayt on Wednesday evening for Morocco in the semi-finals, with much more experience and confidence than they had against Croatia at this point in 2018. It would be human at that point to think about what might follow after that.
But instead, England returns home, with its shattered dreams. France will face Morocco instead, and must be favorites now to be the first team since Brazil 60 years to keep this trophy.
It’s the kind of disappointment that takes months to recover from. Imagine for a moment if this was a normal World Cup in a normal year. Imagine that France’s game took place not on December 10 in Qatar but on July 10 in Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Germany or almost literally anywhere else in the world. Under these circumstances, players would still be entitled to a three-week break before returning for pre-season. They picked up speed, a little slower than their teammates. They might even miss the very start of the new season. And there would be a general understanding that they had been through a physically and emotionally exhausting process. It would take them time to get back to their best.
(This is one area where you don’t have to be an elite professional footballer to have a very vague idea of the feeling. Anyone who has ever put an enormous amount of physical, mental and emotional effort into a project, a particular event or cycle will become familiar with the feeling of being exhausted when it’s over, of emptiness, of struggling to get back to the well to draw a little more motivation for your next challenge Now imagine all that but the event is the greatest show on the planet, and rather than ending in the best time of your professional life, as you thought, it ended in pain and tears instead.)
In these circumstances, we would generally give allowances to players who take time to recover to their best level. They might even take until Christmas to regain their rhythm and motivation and start playing their best football again.
Now think about this dynamic but transplanted into the current context. These England players are going to have to return faster than normal to prepare for the resumption of the club football calendar. There is a full schedule of premier league matches took place from 26–28 December, with seven of those matches on Boxing Day.
Tottenham play the first game at Brentford at 12.30pm on Boxing Day, which means that if Spurs kick off, Kane, of all people, will be the player to kick-start the Premier League campaign. If anyone deserves more particular sympathy — not that he wants it — it’s Kane, whose miss makes him the public face of that defeat, in a way that was immediately apparent as soon as his kick. foot crossed the bar. He came to Qatar in search of the World Cup, his first major trophy, England’s goalscoring record and perhaps a defining moment in his career. He will wait for all this elsewhere.
But there are even national matches before Boxing Day: with Manchester United play in the Ligue’s cup December 21 and Manchester City playing liverpool in the same competition the next day. Managers may spare their returning players for these fixtures, but there’s no doubt teams will want to be full for the league games just after Christmas. And that means the players will face the bizarre situation of playing Premier League football just 16 days after their heartbreak in the desert against France. The same applies to Portugal‘s stars.
This leaves them with almost no time to go home, take a break, return to their clubs and start training for the recovery. Different clubs have slightly different approaches to this. Arsenal expect Aaron Ramsdale and Bukayo Saka back at the end of this week, giving them a bit more time to prepare for their Boxing Day match with West Ham. Manchester City wants John Stones, Kyle Walker, Phil Foden, Jack Greish and Kalvin Phillips back in the middle of the following week, before the Liverpool match. West Ham United have given Declan Rice 10 days off. Spurs will give Kane between eight and 10 days before he is due back.
So a short break then, and less than a week of training for most players before having to play again in the league. Physically, players should be in good shape. It’s not pre-season – the players have kept themselves in good condition throughout the World Cup. Those who didn’t go to Qatar had at most two weeks off, as did those whose teams were eliminated early. They should be able to get back up to speed fairly quickly.
But mentally? Of course, it’s unclear what emotions will run through them over the next few weeks and when the club game grind will return. But it seems plausible to say at the very least that these players will struggle to muster the same levels of motivation that they had here in Qatar.
Maybe we’ll all be surprised and the players will be so desperate to prove a point that they’ll come back better than ever, taking away some of their frustrations in the second half of the domestic season. But right now, he doesn’t quite have that feeling. And if the England team are struggling, they deserve some leeway from the fans, the media, even their own teammates and employers.
These English players are only human and they have lived an experience which must in its own way be overwhelming. They have spent years building so far, making plans, saving energy, staying fit, always with the Qatar World Cup in mind. Now that their World Cup is over, they will have to find new goals, new energies, new sources of motivation, and it will take longer than it takes for the Premier League treadmill to resume. They deserve our patience.
(Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)